18th Century Ohio’s Folly of Massacres

Dr. Roger Anderson, Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures
Central State University

As the Western Front in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the Ohio territory became an epicenter of violence. Belligerents’ inability (or disinterest) to distinguish their opponents from non-belligerents led to a series of gruesome events. This history underscores the importance of bilingual proficiencies and intercultural competence. Three such events are overviewed here. 

Disclaimer: Graphic violence is described. Yet this is part of our Ohio history.


During the war, many American Indian tribes aligned with the British, but the “Moravian Indians” remained famously neutral. They had been Christianized by German-speaking missionaries from Moravia (today’s Czech Republic) and since 1772, had lived in villages along the Tuscarawas River toward the Pennsylvania border. Moravian Christians were committed pacifists, religiously opposed to violence.

The American rebels (for simplicity, Americans) suspected the Moravian Indians to be conspiring with the British. They forced the Moravian Indians from these villages to Upper Sandusky (north-central Ohio) just before the harvest. Some Moravian Indians returned to these villages seeking unharvested crops they left behind (Editors, 2018). At Gnadenhutten (German: “Tents of Grace”), they encountered Captain Williamson’s Pennsylvania militia, where “they were mistaken for Indian raiders who had struck in western Pennsylvania a few weeks earlier”(Ohio Historical Society, undated, p. 30).

Killing of white settlers (near Pittsburgh, PA)

In 1781, Indian raids on Fort Pitt were recurring, so troops were sent into eastern Ohio, where the raids were believed to be originating. Few Moravian Indians were captured and brought back to Fort Pitt, then soon released. “The very night” they were released, “raiding Indians killed and scalped a number of white settlers near Fort Pitt.” Women and children were among the dead. The Moravian Indians were suspected, and “the venom of revenge began to infect the militiamen” (Schlegel, 2014). Historians concur it was the Wyandot and Shawnee that were responsible for the raids, not the Moravian or Delaware/ Lenape (Harper, 2007, p. 621).

The Gnadenhutten1 Massacre (Tuscarawas County, Ohio)

In retaliation, 160 militiamen from western Pennsylvania crossed the Ohio River, destroyed the American Indian habitation of Coshocton, and on March 8, 1782, arrived in Gnadenhutten.  

The militia did not attack upon entering the village; “rather, in a cold calculation, they entered in a peaceable manner” (Leben). That day, they executed 96 American Indians- 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children. The militia lined up the Moravian Indian Martyrs, scalped each one then with a copper mallet struck dead each in the head. Those awaiting their murder were, “praying, singing, and kissing,”, and afterwards, the Pennsylvanian militia then burned all the buildings (Harper, 2007, p. 261). As pacifist Christians, “the Gnadenhutten Indians had nothing to do with the attacks (near Fort Pitt)” (Editors, 2018). Until the very end, they denied any involvement in the killing of Pennsylvania settlers (Kupfer, 2016).

Today, a heap marks their graves. See Image 1. Details of the massacre only became known through two boys who escaped (Sterner, 2018b). News spread among tribes of the region. Today, at the site of the first defeat of the British Army globally- the Battle of Saratoga in New York- a placard (see Image 2) depicting American brutality at Gnadenhutten forces us to remember this unconscionably inhumane event… in Ohio.

Image 1. The grave of the Moravian Indian Martyrs
Image 2. National Park Service’s Interpretive Center in Saratoga Springs, New York remembers the Gnadenhutten Massacre 

A century later, Teddy Roosevelt called the Gnadenhutten Massacre, “a stain on frontier character that the lapse of time cannot wash away” (Roosevelt, 1889, p. 145). 

Crawford’s Defeat (Upper Sandusky, Seneca County, Ohio)

A friend of Gen. George Washington, Colonel William Crawford helped found Revolutionary War-era Fort Laurens in Tuscarawas County. He also fought at the Battle of Point Pleasant on the Ohio River in 1774. In 1782, he led the Crawford Expedition, comprised of 400 militiamen, to destroy American Indian villages on the Sandusky River, hoping to end attacks on settlers (HMDB.org, 2023). Ultimately, Crawford was captured. 

On June 11, 1782, near Crawfordsville (Wyandot County), Col. Crawford was stripped naked, and his body was painted black. He was shot with 70 gunpowder loads from feet to neck. His ears were cut off and he was poked with burning hot pokers. He begged fellow frontiersman Simon Girty, forced to watch the torture, to shoot him (but Girty had no gun). Crawford was then scalped and was burned alive (Anderson, 1896). Today a monument stands at this abominable site (Wyandot County, 2016). 

Crawford was not at Gnadenhutten, yet some of Crawford’s men had participated in the killing (Touring Ohio, 2023). Today, debates persist if Crawford was mistakenly tortured as retaliation for the Gnadenhutten Massacre. Some suggest it occurred due to his rank and career of fighting American Indians (Sterner, 2018a). Others suggest an English-speaking American Indian overheard Crawford tell Simon Girty he hoped to buy his freedom, which provoked the chiefs’ ire (Anderson, 1896, p. 28). 

Like the Alamo or Pearl Harbor, Crawford’s Defeat became a rallying cry for nationalism (McKee, 2023). Specifically, “Crawford’s fate inflamed frontier sentiment against the Indians” (Ohio History Connection, 2023).


Ohio’s colonial era history is incredibly violent. We live here today only because an ethnic cleansing and genocide depopulated it for settler colonialism. We, contemporary Ohioans, cannot deny this fact. Mistaking one group of people for another, blaming the whole for the sins of the few, only promulgates evil. 

The work of world language educators is to improve Ohioans’ ability to communicate with others and to recognize cultural differences while never losing sight of people’s humanity. What if Captain Williamson was able to differentiate the Shawnee people from Delaware? What if Crawford spoke enough of the Wyandot language to say, “It wasn’t me! I wasn’t there!” or, “I’m sorry for your people.” I wish these individuals had possessed some bilingual abilities. I wish that professional language instructors had guided them to more nuanced, humanistic thinking.

*Photos taken by the author. Email him for references: randerson@centralstate.edu

1Read Eric Sterner’s Anatomy of a Massacre: The Destruction of Gnadenhutten, 1782.

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